Russ de Herder will never forget the first time he saw Brian Billett on ice skates at the Carolina Ice Palace.
The Charleston Wolverines, a travel team for 7- and 8-year olds, were holding tryouts. The coaches - de Herder and former South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jason Hehr - had the task of picking the team.
Billett, who was just 7 at the time, played roller hockey but had been on ice skates only a handful of times. He took a few tentative steps on the ice and promptly fell down. With the help of his father, Billett got back onto his feet and skated slowly around the ice.
"I remember thinking that this might not work out for us," Hehr said.
For the rest of the practice, de Herder and Hehr remember Mark Billett helping his son stay upright on the ice.
"He had his own goalie gear, they were hand-me-downs from his brother Christopher, and he was the only goalie with his own equipment," de Herder said. "He was our goalie by default."
From those humble beginnings, Billett has blossomed into one of college hockey's top goalies at Boston College. The Eagles, who won their fourth NCAA title in 2012, play Union College, located in Schenectady, N.Y., in the Frozen Four on Thursday in Philadelphia. The game will be televised by ESPN2 at 5 p.m.
Billett remembers his early days at the Ice Palace with reverence. Without the youth hockey program in Charleston, Billett isn't sure he'd be playing today.
"They made it fun, those coaches and all those guys I played with at the Ice Palace made me fall in love with the game," Billett said in a telephone interview this week. "I can still remember all my teammates from those Wolverine teams.
"When I tell people I got my start in ice hockey in Charleston, South Carolina, they usually don't believe me."
When Billett wasn't practicing at the Ice Palace, he would make his way over to the North Charleston Coliseum and watch his favorite hockey team - the South Carolina Stingrays.
Billett said he always focused on Stingrays goalie Kirk Duabenspeck during the team's warm-up drills. Billett would watch Daubenspeck's stretching routine, his stance, where he held his glove and the placement of his stick.
"The things that Daubenspeck could do were amazing to me," Billett said. "He was by far my favorite player."
Daubenspeck, who led the Stingrays to an ECHL title in 2001, was surprised to learn that a Charleston youth player had made his way to Boston College.
"It's incredibly flattering to think I had any impact on a young player back then," said Daubenspeck, who lives and works in Wisconsin. "To have someone from back then remember me now and look up to me when I was playing is very cool. I think Boston College has found one more fan this weekend."
Billett played at the Ice Palace for the Wolverines for five years before his family moved to Maine, where he led his team to consecutive Eastern Junior Hockey League titles.
He signed with Boston College and was on the Eagles' national title team in 2012 team as a freshman. This season Billett is 12-3-1 with a 2.42 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
If you look closely enough, you'll notice a South Carolina flag on Billett's goalie helmet. That's a tribute to his hockey roots.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without coaches like Russ de Herder and Jason Hehr," Billett said. "They taught me so much about the game that I still take with me to this day."
Billett will attend a rookie NHL camp with the New York Islanders this summer. If he gets a chance to play professionally, Billett hopes he'll be able to play at least once in the North Charleston Coliseum.
"Obviously, making it to the NHL is my ultimate dream," Billett said. "That's everyone's dream at this level. But playing for the South Carolina Stingrays, wearing that jersey one time at the North Charleston Coliseum, would be a close second in my book."
Maine center Brian Flynn (10) scores on Boston College goalie Brian Billett (1) in the first period of their college hockey game against Maine, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Michael C. York)×